John James Audubon, naturalist and artist famous for his drawings and paintings of North American birds, died at his home in New York City on January 27, 1851. He was sixty-five years old.
Audubon was born April 26, 1785 in Les Cayes, Saint-Domingue (now Haiti), the illegitimate son of a French sea captain and a young French chambermaid working on the island. Audubon’s mother died shortly after his birth, and as revolution flared in 1791, Audubon and a half-sister were sent to live with their father’s wife in the west of France. There the young Audubon pursued his interest in drawing birds native to the wetlands near his home on the Loire River estuary.
At age eighteen, in 1803, Audubon emigrated to the United States to avoid military conscription and to manage a farm his father owned, Mill Grove outside of Philadelphia. There he was first able to observe North America’s birds, conducting the earliest known bird banding experiments in 1804; he also met his future wife, Lucy Bakewell, who he married in 1808. For the next two decades, he made several unsuccessful business ventures. Encouraged by his wife, Lucy, he continued drawing birds. His fascination with birds eventually inspired him to journey as far south as the Florida Keys and as far north as Labrador, Canada. From 1810 to 1819, the family lived in Henderson, Kentucky, a town located along the Mississippi flyway, an important migratory route for birds.
Audubon also spent part of his working life in New Orleans, from 1811 to 1821. Audubon Park was created there in 1886, on the site of the 1884 Cotton Centennial Exposition. The park, administered since 1989 by the Audubon Nature InstituteExternal, was named in Audubon’s honor and is home to the Audubon Zoological Garden.
After 1820, Audubon and his wife supported themselves with a succession of jobs while he worked on his drawings. Audubon’s masterwork, The Birds of America, consisting of 435 hand-colored plates in four volumes, was published by London engraver Robert Havell between 1827 and 1838. His reputation as an illustrator now secure, Audubon settled in the city of New York in 1839.
His last major work, a series of paintings of mammals native to North America, arose in part from a journey along the Missouri and Yellowstone rivers. Audubon’s illustrations for The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America were published in three volumes between 1845 and 1848.
In 1886, George Bird Grinnell, editor of Forest and Stream, founded the first Audubon Society of New York, a forerunner of the National Audubon SocietyExternal. Grinnell named the organization for John James Audubon, dedicating it to the preservation of birds and their protection from the increasing threat of extinction. After 1900, the National Association of Audubon Societies supported the effort to end U.S. participation in the international trade in wild bird feathers. Extermination threatened many birds hunted for plumage essential to fashionable women’s hats. An act of Congress in 1913 banned importation of such feathers except for scientific or educational purposes.
- Search on bird protection in The Evolution of the Conservation Movement 1850-1920 to locate more documents highlighting the nascent movement to protect endangered bird life. Citizen Bird: Scenes from Bird Life in Plain English for Beginners features illustrations by Louis Agassiz Fuertes, another important figure in the American pantheon of ornithological illustrators.
- See the online tour of Selections from John James Audubon’s The Birds of America (1827-1838) at the National Gallery of Art.
- See the following Today in History features to learn about conservation in America:
- Search on the term bird in the collection Historic American Sheet MusicExternal to find a wide variety of nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century sheet music which refers to our fine feathered friends, for example, “When the Mocking Birds are Singing in the Wildwood External” or “When the Birds in Georgia Sing of Tennessee External.”
- A search on the term bird in African-American Sheet MusicExternal will reveal tunes such as “Build a Nest for Birdie.” External
- Read articles by George Bird Grinnell in the Making of AmericaExternal collection of Cornell University. Search on his name in this collection to find, for example, his 1883 article on “Snipe-Shooting.”